Florida is such a familiar place to the Ritsons. My family has strong ties with the Sunshine State; my parents travel here almost every year, my uncle owns a house just outside Tampa (the pool deck of which I’m currently writing this on) and I’ve visited many times on family holidays, mostly to run around the theme parks in Orlando like the ageing juvenile that I am.
Whilst Florida is undoubtedly a beautiful place, with much to recommend it, full of that sort of effortless enthusiasm and politeness that people in the UK seem to find both gratifying and irksome in equal measure, it’s actually the idea of ‘theming’ that I want to talk about here. So, I feel it only fair to warn my non-architectural friends and family that we’re going to stray into ‘my world’ for a bit - I won’t hold a grudge if you bail out on me here.
Sticking around? Well, let’s get going then.
Something that always strikes me when I visit this part of the U.S., more so than any other part I’ve seen - everything here, especially buildings, seems to be designed to communicate a particular geographic or cultural aspiration, often something that is incongruous with its surroundings or situational context. That’s a particularly ham-fisted way of saying that most of the major pieces of infrastructure here have a ‘theme’ - a defining aesthetic conceit that informs and flows through the overall development.
The most obvious exponent of this approach to design is clearly those involved in the design of Mr. Disney’s parks (and, to a lesser extent, those of Universal Studios), which if you haven't visited yet would be well worth a trip - especially for those readers in the architectural profession. As somebody with a staked interest in the design of physical space (I can hear some of my architectural colleagues laughing here), I have always been fascinated by the consistency and dedication with which these ‘themes’ are delivered, particularly at Disney World.
As context, the beginnings of the design process for most modern architectural projects revolves around the abstraction of some idea or concept, perhaps drawn from the site or its history or something even more esoteric (ley lines perhaps?), which quickly becomes an architectural in-joke - something for people in perspex glasses and buttoned-up collars to nod knowingly at when they read about it in the Architectural Journal. Very rarely are buildings conceived to communicate a specific and extant architectural style - critics would use the word ‘pastiche’ for this and would not use it kindly.
Yet this ‘theming’ happens all over the States, from shopping malls to restaurants, institutions to theme parks, with the latter being the most obvious and greatest example of the craft. Native American, San Fran’s Boardwalks, Polynesian ‘fale’ - all have been researched, adapted and then recreated in fibreglass and concrete. What has always interested me the most is that Disney’s ‘Imagineers’ have to take what these indigenous architectures actually are and interpret them into what guests expect them to be. It must be an incredible design challenge - the reduction and simplification of an often ancient and refined idea into an expressive outward caricature of the original. Fake it may be, but I am willing to bet it’s as hard to make a successfully themed hotel as it is to start from scratch. I also like that it actually seems quite fitting that the buildings with which Disney surround themselves follow the same process of over-exaggeration that are at the heart of their cartoons from which the empire first sprung.
For all of Disney’s success at this though, most of Florida has adopted the trappings of a theme of one sort or another, yet without any of the style and thought that the designers of House of Mouse must have poured into their creations. These last couple of days have brought me into close contact with many experiments in pastiche design; we’ve visited restaurants, shopping malls and even entire mock ‘town centres’ that all seek to create a sense of place where there was none before. Most of these fail, becoming banal and paper thin recreations of imagery and ideas that are little more than novelty and most are almost always entirely focussed inwards. Vast parking lots surround an island of blank beige boxes that try to convince unresisting shoppers that they actually walking down the classic (but air conditioned) New England main street, without providing any hint of the baking tarmac and crab grass margins surrounding them.
We did visit one new example worth mentioning though - the imaginatively named The Shops at Wiregrass. Rather brilliantly, there isn’t actually a Wiregrass. It’s not a town or settlement - it’s just a mall, still surrounded by acres of car-parking, but with the key conceit of turning the traditional shopping mall inside out. The developers really have created a high street as we’d understand it, an arcing semicircle of shops, coffee houses and restaurants (complete with miniature town square), but rather bizarrely, without anything at the ends of the arc. It’s worth looking up on Google Maps (especially in satellite view) as this really conveys the eccentric planning and gives a sense of just how ‘island’ these places are. Despite this though, I actually thought it was quite a successful analogy of a town street - people walk down either side of a central road, you’re outside for most of the time and there’s plenty of space to pause to enjoy the weather. But it’s still an odd experience all the same.
I suppose it all comes down to identity. Maybe we’re spoiled in Europe, where we’re enjoying cities and towns that have existed for hundreds (if not thousands) of years before America, as it is today, was anything other than a few dozen Spaniards getting in a boat, determined to see what was over the horizon. Perhaps these outlying parts of the USA have to borrow what identity they can, stealing those things that they can recognise as genuinely ‘American’, rather than specifically Floridian? To be fair, Florida is largely a swamp, with pretty beaches, so a little light pickpocketing of cultural starting points might be justified - it just seems like it’s been allowed to run rampant, so that now Florida retains very little of whatever it might truly have laid claimed to in forming it’s own identity.
The strange thing is that Florida, like all of the States, has a rich cultural history - there’s probably no chance now of the Native Americans getting a mention, but Florida was first a Spanish colony (it was actually the first place in mainland America to be encountered by Europeans) and was subsequently handed over to the British before returning to the Spanish following the War of Independence. There’s a lot there to define a place, but so far this heritage extends to the occasional roof finished with Spanish tiling - so I wonder why the Floridian people choose to deny the more obvious references that surround them in exchange for Texas Roadhouses and indoor streets with brick wallpaper? It’ll be interesting to see whether this approach is consistently adopted as we travel across the southern states - I sincerely hope it isn’t.
Wow. That was quite a hefty post, and perhaps a little too earnest at that - but it interests me and there’s not a lot to do around here when the sun goes down. I’ve introduced my folks to House of Cards so they’re currently consuming the boxset with gusto - maybe my self imposed solitude on the deck has given me an introspective (and mock-intellectual) air. Apologies if any of you have fell unconscious whilst reading this, I’m sure it’ll be back to normal service tomorrow, so until then…